Douglas Murray starts by tracing the genealogy of neoconservatism, beginning with much-maligned Leo Strauss. More a philosopher than a political commentator, Strauss emphasised the importance of studying of 5th Century Athenian thinkers, such as Plato. One of the biggest obstacles to gainful study of ancient texts, he recognised, was the assumption that “we know best” – that we have built on the ancients’ achievements and thereby surpassed them.
By contrast, studying such writers with an uncluttered mind, and indeed with the assumption that they were in fact possessed of greater wisdom than us, gives us unparalleled freedom to question modern society. One of Strauss’s other key contributions was his re-affirmation of the primacy of “natural right” – the tenet that some acts are intrinsically right or wrong rather than depending on the cultural context.
Murray shows how later thinkers built on these intellectual foundations.
He demonstrates how the early neo-conservatives rose to the moral challenges of the early and middle post-War period – the menace of intellectual relativism in education; the counter-culture (not in the sense of an alternative lifestyle, but rather in the sense of a truculent and nihilistic rejection of the majority culture), and perhaps most significantly, what they saw as the ambivalent liberal establishment response to the Communist menace.
A distinctive and abiding feature of neoconservatism, the author states, is what he calls “moral clarity” – having clear and properly thought-out moral principles, applying them unswervingly, and following them to their logical conclusions even if these are unpalatable.
For instance, neoconservatives’ “unilateralism” and antipathy towards the UN is not based on cussedness, insularity, or xenophobia, but on a recognition that the the concept of international law is based on a lie – namely, that the UN is a community of states sharing common values.
By the 80’s, neoconservatives had been accepted into the mainstream American Right. The rigid categories of neo-conservative on the one hand and traditional- or non-hypenated conservatives on the other, had become less distinct.
Towards the end of the book, Murray provides us with a suggested neoconservative “basic programme”, which contains few elements that a typical Tory Party member, or at any rate a young and idealistic one, would balk at.
Does neoconservatism, then, still have any practical relevance as a philosophy? The author insists that it does.
Neoconservatism, he argues, might appear an extreme form of conservatism, but is actually a “middle way” between palaeoconservatism, which is in hock to tradition and nostalgia, and “conservatism in name only”, which is essentially about defending the status quo even if the status quo is a left-wing one.